Hard on the brakes I heel-toe and double down in the gears, executing Infineon Raceway’s important Turn 11; a tight late-apex right-hander I had practiced repeatedly just an hour before. My EVO X GSR pushes hard toward the outside wall as I grab third and then fourth, changing over to the other wall at Turn 12 and blasting down the front straight, pushing above the 100 mph mark and heading straight into Turn 1. The track rises up before me like more of an asphalt wall than a hill, gravity working with the EVO’s impressive AWD setup to keep the car balanced as I spy the apex of turn two and hammer the brakes.
|1. The Jim Russell Mitsubishi Lancer Evolution Experience gives participants an entire day behind the wheel of an EVO X, doing performance driving, including two lapping sessions on the world-class Infineon raceway.
2. Both manual-transmission GSR and dual-clutch automatic MR models are offered by the school.
3. Impressively, the entire day costs just $995.
I’m at the Jim Russell Racing Driver’s School Mitsubishi Lancer Evolution Experience, a program the Japanese automaker hopes will not only allow enthusiasts and average Joes alike to experience just how capable and fun the latest EVO is, but to spread the word that despite its perception as a less hard-core machine than previous iterations, the X is the best EVO yet.
And they couldn’t have chosen a better pairing than with Jim Russell, who’s chief instructor, Paul Gerrard, is a veteran of racing past EVO models overseas and currently pilots the AMS-tuned EVO X in the Redline Time Attack series, where he took the Unlimited AWD Class Championship last year.
This is an added benefit, as not only is Gerrard an incredibly skilled driver, but he knows EVOs inside and out, meaning that he’s got plenty of tips and tricks on how to get the most out of the car – something that should really get EVO owners out to this school. And considering the unique nature of Mitsubishi’s Super All Wheel Control (S-AWC) setup, the EVO lends itself to vehicle-specific advice.
Surprisingly, despite the obvious synergies between Mitsubishi and Gerrard, the reason for the partnership with the Jim Russell Racing Drivers School lies elsewhere. The Jim Russell school, you see, uses EVO IV motors in its full carbon chassis formula cars, which is where the business relationship between the school and the automaker began.
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PLENTY OF SEAT TIME FOR PRACTICING TECHNIQUE
Offered as a one-day class for a bargain price of $995, the Lancer Evolution Experience starts early for maximum seat time. Following a classroom portion where instructors cover the basics, it’s time to pick a car. Thankfully, the school offers both manual-transmission GSR models, as well as MR models with Mitsu’s amazing Twin Clutch Sportronic Shift Transmission (TC-SST) with paddle shifters.
With plenty of vehicles available, the school even encourages students to try out both transmission types. I spent most of my day in a GSR, although the dual-clutch setup is equally capable (if not more so). Plus, it’s perfect for those who aren’t comfortable with a manual tranny, or who haven’t heel-toed in a while.
Technical exercises make up much of the day, with lap time almost like a reward. Gerrard points out the importance of each exercise, commenting how Roger Federer will practice a single swing technique for hours, while pro sports teams run repetitive drills, and yet for some reason in motorsports, even at an amateur level, drivers think that once they have been out on a track they have nothing to learn. My experience proved that you can always do with a refresher course.
Along with a group of other journalists, my day began at a slalom course. A simple task, in and of itself, the instructors walk you through executing a perfect path around the cones, starting wide and getting increasingly narrow, with consistent application of the throttle. And with the EVO’s amazing all-wheel drive setup, even the slalom speeds can get exciting. Better yet, you get to feel the EVO’s S-AWC system give you all-wheel grip but with some rear-drive maneuverability, so you can hang the tail out – even if that’s not the goal here.
This exercise really teaches you to use as little effort to get the result you want out of the car, as well as what happens when you try and over-drive the car. Crushed pylons don’t lie.
Next up we practiced a “simple” right hand corner, marked out with pylons in the paddock area, increasing our speed with each few attempts and working to get the trail braking perfect. In many ways this late apex turn is a replica of Infineon’s turn 11 and is important to get down pat, as proper execution means more speed down the front straight.
After numerous runs (seat time is plentiful) it was time to put that specific skill into practice, so we helmeted-up for our first lapping session on the big track. With my group all having had previous experience at Infineon, the day’s first track session immediately took on a brisk pace.
JIM RUSSELL FRJ-50 OPEN WHEEL RACECARS ARE POWERED BY EVO IX 4G63 ENGINES
Along with the Lancer Evolution Experience, Jim Russell also offers numerous other driving and racing schools, including several with the FRJ-50 formula car. Featuring functional and adjustable aerodynamics, racing slicks and an EVO IX 4G63 engine, the FRJ-50 makes as much as 300-hp in racing trim and 195-hp with the boost turned down for racing school.
Essentially a step below a Formula One racecar, the FRJ-50 was designed by world-famous racecar builder Lola. It uses a complete carbon fiber monocoque chassis and in total weighs just 1,025 lbs. It can hit 60 mph in under 4 seconds, 100 mph in less than 9 seconds and can achieve up to 3 gs of cornering force. As well as a tool for teaching racing technique, Jim Russell also uses these machines for its Championship Series, the winner of which gets a fully funded season in Europe’s FIA Formula Two Championship series.
With the EVO theme running deep at Jim Russell, we had hoped to get some seat time in an FRJ-50, but due to circumstances beyond our control it wasn’t possible at that time. We hope to bring you a complete story on the FRJ-50 experience in the future.
HIGH-SPEED LAPPING ON INFINEON’S CHALLENGING CORNERS
The format is a lead-follow with an instructor up front and several students riding solo behind. It may sound like a parade, but it’s anything but. The instructor will let you drive to your limits and has the skill to do so; able to keep ahead of our pack with just one hand on the wheel and the other on his radio, barking back pointers and encouragement.
And push the limits we did, with one of the drivers running wide and even spinning… neither of which are recommended.
The idea of the track time being like a reward is only true if you want it to be. The other, and arguably proper way to look at it, is to use the technical skills learned earlier to make yourself a better driver.
It’s hard to pick up where to improve when cornering at 100 mph in Turn 1, but by practicing the proper technique for Turn 11 onto the front straight, it’s possible to lift that 100 mph speed to a 105.
The EVO really is a perfect car for experiencing Infineon, a track that often plays second-fiddle to the more widely-known Laguna Seca, but which is arguably the more technical, exhilarating and rewarding. In fact, the EVO X is perfect for any track, being so capable that it’s really just wasted on the street.
A note for those thinking of attending, if you’ve ever seen a race on TV that took place at Infineon, it was probably either IRL or NASCAR, both of which use a less technical layout, skipping the sweeping left-hand off-camber Turn 6 which drops a solid 80 feet in elevation. Lancer Evolution Experience participants get to feel this thrill first hand. And what a thrill! It’s important to keep just a little positive pedal pressure in order to keep the car planted and give maximum grip, in order to exit wide, using up the entire width of the track and carry plenty of speed down the next straight.
Turn 6 is followed by a technical section, but first there’s that long straight, at the end of which the EVO’s braking capabilities really shine. Automotive journalists often talk about how such-and-such a car showed no brake fade during a test, but often on a track that’s not the case. The EVO, however, delivered confident and consistent braking lap after lap. In fact, it begged to be pushed further and further into the braking zones, always shaving off speed with finesse.
PRACTICING THE “SCANDINAVIAN FLICK”
With lapping session one over, we broke for lunch and then a quick classroom talk before the day’s most unconventional exercise. Called “the hourglass” by our instructors, this is where we practiced what any World Rally Car fan will know as the “Scandinavian flick.”
It’s simple… in theory. Just get up to speed, point the car left, lift off the throttle and toss the car right. Once you’ve established a full four-wheel loss of traction, get on the throttle and carry that drift. Theoretically, it’s possible to maintain a drift for a complete hourglass shape. Theoretically…
After that humbling experience it was off to the autocross, where several practice laps led to a timed competition. Here I encountered yet another problem. It wasn’t skill, but rather ego. As soon as the stop watch came out, my ego did too, testosterone pushing me to overdrive the car, even so far as taking out two stop box cones – resulting in a rather dismal time.
Which brings up an important point: check your ego at the front gate… and try and leave your bad habits there with it. The Jim Russell instructors have a lot to teach and often the biggest problem is overcoming bad habits. And much like the old mantra that with racing you need to look ahead, Gerrard firmly believes that it’s just as important to think ahead to what you need to do next.
With that in mind, we headed back onto the track for a final thrill ride. With Infineon’s curves fresh in my mind from the morning session and after the skills refresher course, the last lapping session gave an even deeper appreciation of the EVO and what it can do. The EVO X has capabilities beyond those of most drivers and the car’s complex S-AWC setup continues to surprise.
Technical aspects of the car are best left for a review (found here), but the S-AWC setup really is impressive, integrating all aspects of the Active Center Differential (ACD), Active Yaw Control (AYC) rear differential, Active Stability Control (ASC) and even the brakes. Particularly impressive is the AYC system, which delivers maximum grip thanks to inputs from the throttle, steering wheel, individual wheels speeds as well as the longitudinal and lateral movements of the car. It’s actually shocking that such a high-tech system is available in a car that starts at $33,590 ($38,900 for MR modes).
Possibly even more amazing is that Jim Russell will let you thrash this incredible machine for an entire day for just $995. In fact, if Continental Tires didn’t sponsor the whole deal and provide the high-performance rubber free of charge, the experience would cost significantly more. As it stands, you’re sure to go through a set or two of tires – which alone could run more than a grand.
Yes, as many outlets have reported, the EVO X is 250-lbs heavier than the previous gen model and yes, it’s slower in the quarter mile; but as an all-round performer, it far outshines the IX.
While so many automakers these days infuse their cars with technology for technology’s sake, the EVO X is a great example of how to do technology right. Not only does it let you, the driver, have better control and push the car further to its limits and yours, but at the same time it delivers a pure, uninhibited and natural feel behind the wheel.
The Jim Russell Lancer Evolution Experience allows, at a bargain of a price, hard-core EVO enthusiasts and thrill seekers alike the opportunity to see what one of the best handling cars ever made can really do, while at the same time offering professional driving instruction no matter your skill level.